The U.S. Supreme Court's decision to strike down part of the Voting Rights Act Tuesday could have a big impact on North Carolina.
State Attorney General Roy Cooper said the ruling means, at least for now, that the state and 40 of its counties no longer need clearance from the federal government before changing voting laws or districts.
"I think this is a setback in the fight to ensure equal access to the ballot box because we don't have this tool to use to make sure that laws passed are not discriminatory," Cooper said.
He said now those laws would only be challenged after the fact in lawsuits. Here's why:
The high court ruled that Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act is unconstitutional. That section laid out a formula to identify states and counties that need to get federal approval before changing voting laws or districts – often called preclearance.
Congress came up with the formula in 1965 and then updated it in the 1970s. Catawba College Acting Provost Michael Bitzer says it was meant to target places with a history of racial discrimination.
"Throughout the South during the age of segregation and Jim Crow laws, Southern states adopted these barriers to prevent blacks from voting," Bitzer said. "For example, a literacy test."
If a state or county used those kinds of tests and had less than 50 percent of its voting age population registered to vote, then it would need to get clearance for voting changes.
Forty counties fell under that formula in North Carolina. Because of that, the state as a whole has also needed to get changes approved.
Here's how that's played out on the county level:
Mecklenburg is not one of the 40 counties that fell under the Voting Rights Act, but several nearby ones were, like Cleveland County. Debra Blanton is the director of elections there.
"I laughingly say that if we change the color of the toilet paper in the bathrooms, then we need to get preclearance first before we're allowed to do that," Blanton said.
Blanton is obviously kidding, but counties and states that are covered have had to get every little voting change cleared, like setting up a new polling site.
She said it takes weeks of work to put together a request to the U.S. Department of Justice for approval, so no longer having to get clearance would be a big deal to boards of election.
But she does not think the change would have much of an impact on voting laws in Cleveland County. She's been the head of elections there since 1987, and here's how often she says the Department of Justice has denied her preclearance:
"They have never denied anything that we have requested that they approve," she said. "Never. Nothing."
But Attorney General Roy Cooper said the federal government has denied North Carolina counties and the state as a whole on occasion. The most recent county denial was in 2012, and the most recent state one was in 1996.
Cooper said Congress should come up with a new formula to determine what places need clearance.
"But we know how fast Congress moves," he said. "In fact, I don't think we can depend on them to adopt something quickly, if at all!"
In the meantime, some state legislators are aiming to push through measures that would've required clearance before. Senate Rules Committee Chairman Tom Apodaca says he expects voter ID legislation to pick up steam because of the Supreme Court decision.
That worries Chris Brook. He's the legal director of the North Carolina ACLU.
"The legislature right now is considering measures that would require photo ID, considering measures that would eliminate same-day voter registration, (and) considering measures that would greatly shorten early voting," Brook said. "All of those would have disproportionate impacts on communities of color here in North Carolina."
Brook said although those measures could pass without federal approval now, the ACLU may still challenge them in court.